British Gas complaints rise by 100%

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The Independent Online
Customer complaints to British Gas have doubled over the last two years, and the company is receiving so many calls that it has been forced to recruit high-cost agency staff to replace customer service staff sacked since privatisation.

Ofgas director general Clare Spottiswoode said in a letter to Brian Donohoe, a Labour frontbencher, last month that there had been "a quantum increase" in telephone complaints in recent months.

"Call volumes have doubled in the last two years; as a result. the company now deals with between 650,000 and 720,000 calls a week."

Mr Donohoe, who had complained about the trouble his Cunninghame South constituents were having in getting through, was told by Ms Spottiswoode that Ofgas was aware of the problems faced by Scottish customers, and customers in other regions of the country.

The crisis had been caused - in part - by a staff cut by 20,000 from the near-90,000 employed when the utility was privatised 10 years ago.

''There is a recognition that the downsizing exercise resulted in the loss of experienced customer service staff," Ms Spottiswoode said.

But she then added: "Staffing on customer focused activities has now been restored to 1994 levels by employing highly-trained agency personnel."

Improved telephone equipment had been installed, extra lines had been set up - and an "overspill" office had been set up in Leeds, with 160 staff, "to which calls are automatically re-routed when area offices are working at full capacity". On top of that, most regions had extended their office hours, with complaint lines staffed from 8am to 6pm on weekdays, and until lunchtime on Saturday. After 6pm, staff turned their attention to "correspondence backlogs" that had resulted from the marked increase in telephone complaints.

Work on correspondence went on until 8pm, but British Gas Trading was now considering creating night shifts to deal with correspondence.

Apart from "downsizing", additional problems had been faced over bill queries. She said: "The implementation and use of the New Tariff Gas Billing system and associated problems with IT [information technology] interfaces has resulted in additional queries ... as has the greater use of Electronic Tariff Meters, bill payment difficulties arising from cold winters and queries arising from the increased choice of tariffs offered by the company."

Gas bill estimating had also created hostility and the company is currently carrying out a special exercise to read of domestic gas meters "to ensure that billing and estimating accuracy is improved".

After British Gas had conceded a "deterioration in service'" last February, Ms Spottiswoode warned that unless there was a dramatic improvement, customers would "defect in droves" to other providers when the domestic market was opened up to competition.

She said some level of service were "truly atrocious".